The drums of Rarotonga
Kris Hall finds his feet in the warm wecome of the Cook Islands.
Dancing has never been my strong point.
I still bear the scars from my junior school disco days: two left feet and Lady in Red never did mix.
Yet I was rendered helpless by Rarotonga's hypnotic drum beats, and a sea of swaying hips swept me up with all the ease of a South Pacific cyclone and whisked me off to the heart of the dreaded dancefloor.
Backed by a chorus of lilting ukuleles and framed in a sea of colour, my dancers seductively swing from side to side. Behind us, the beat quickens and young warriors emerge, their knees gyrating in spellbinding fashion.
Somewhere in the middle of this chaos, I break free from the shackles of panic and relax. I watch intently and try to copy their clever moves, for I am caught in the moment and love every second of the ride.
For those who share my dancing disposition, the Cook Islands' traditional hura (hula) dance is not for the rhythmically challenged. But such are the expression and sensuality that fuel this Polynesian pastime that you can't help but shake your booty.
Song and dance lies at the heart of Cook Islands culture, and to experience it first-hand is to be intoxicated - the background beat of log drums soothing the soul as if it were the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
This is as hectic as life gets in the Cooks. The locals are so laid- back they're practically horizontal. But why break a sweat? The toughest decision you'll make is which idyllic stretch of sand to plant your bum on.
There's plenty of choice in Rarotonga, where visions of turquoise lagoons and picture-postcard sunsets are so bountiful you'll get sick of taking snaps.
Rarotonga is the main island of the Cooks, a group of 15 white- rimmed islands scattered over some 2 million square kilometres of the South Pacific and flanked to the east by Tahiti, and to the west by Tonga and the Samoas. "Raro" is a 32km circle of sand fenced by a spectacular fish-infested reef which acts as a slim barrier between the island's serene lagoon and the ocean beyond.
The centre of the island is a complete contrast. Sheer volcanic cliffs topped with lush vegetation make the island's heart impregnable except for a few tracks that attract only the most intrepid visitors.
Getting around is easy - a sealed ring road is plied by countless old buses charging $4 a lap. If you're staying a few days, hiring a scooter is a good option. Rental kiosks litter the roadside, offering noisy two- stroke machines for as little as $18 a day. You'll have to nip to the police station in Avarua first to apply for a mandatory driver's licence. It takes five minutes to process and, at $20, is one of those tacky must-have souvenirs.
It's inevitable that with just one circular road, things can get as chaotic as Courtenay Place during rush hour.
Visitors seeking a stay away from the crowds can take the 45-minute hop to more remote islands: Aitutaki and Atiu are served by Air Rarotonga and, stripped of anything modern, offer a true slice of paradise for those planning to do nothing more taxing than swing in a hammock or bathe in a luminous lagoon.
Life on the main island is faster- paced, although Avarua's smattering of artisan shops and cafes - dominated by jewellers trying to shift exceptionally expensive native black pearls - soon wears thin.
Daytime activities worth a look include the handful of reasonably priced lagoon cruises - complete with snorkelling - while Raro's core can be explored as part of an adrenalin-pumping off-road safari.
Raro offers visitors as good a selection of restaurants as you'll find anywhere in the Pacific. For meat lovers, most menus boast export- grade New Zealand beef and locally farmed pork, but it's the fish dishes that capture the imagination, and there's no shortage. The fragrant and refreshing Ika Mata (raw fish marinated in lime, served with coconut cream and cooked root vegetables) or richer Eke (octopus served in its own ink) are a real taste of local cuisine.
Follow it with a few cold beers at one of Raro's many late-night drinking institutions - Trader Jacks or Banana Court, for instance. Matutu is the latest local beer to make its name on the island, but international stalwarts like Heineken and Steinlager can be found, as well as a wide selection of New Zealand wines.
* Kris Hall flew to Rarotonga as a guest of Air New Zealand and Cook Islands Tourism.
GETTING THERE: Air NZ flies direct from Auckland to Rarotonga nine times a week from $289 one way, with connecting services from Wellington and Christchurch. Direct flights from Christchurch July-October; see airnewzealand.co.nz. Pacific Blue flies direct from Auckland to Rarotonga three times a week from $344 one way, with connecting fares from Wellington and Christchurch; see flypacificblue.co.nz.
WORTH KNOWING: Currency is NZ$; mandatory departure tax $55 per adult and $15 per child, not included in ticket price; driving licence $20 at Avarua police station.
The Dominion Post